Ukraine swaps 200 prisoners with pro-Russian separatists
Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists in the country's war-torn east exchanged 200 prisoners on Sunday, swapping detained fighters for civilians and servicemen held captive in some cases for years in the breakaway regions.
“The mutual release of the detainees has ended,” the presidential office in Kiev said in a statement on Facebook.
The Ukrainian presidency said Kiev received 76 captives, while separatist officials said the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics took in a total of 124 people.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the swap as "positive".
The agreement was concluded by Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Paris in December.
The swap took place at a check point near the industrial town of Horlivka in the Donetsk region.
Kiev's forces have been battling separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine since 2014 in a conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives. Sporadic fighting continues despite a ceasefire agreement.
There have been several prisoner exchanges between Kiev and the rebels. In the last swap, conducted in December 2017, Ukraine handed over about 300 captives to pro-Russian separatists and took back around 70.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed following Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, and its subsequent supporut for separatists in the eastern Donbass region.
President Zelenskiy won a landslide election victory in April promising to end the conflict.
Widely criticized domestically for his plan to grant special status to Donbass to help end the five-year conflict, Zelenskiy's latest actions have given rise to cautious optimism.
In September, after a carefully negotiated rapprochement, Russia and Ukraine swapped dozens of prisoners. The move brought Western praise and hopes that relations between Moscow and Kiev could thaw.
The released Ukrainians included sailors detained by Russia during a clash in waters off Crimea last year, and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, jailed in Russia.
The meeting of Ukrainian, Russian, German and French leaders earlier this month in Paris renewed optimism for a resolution to the conflict, and confirmed the relevance of an early peace agreement signed in Belarusian capital Minsk in 2015.
Relations between the two countries are also unlikely to be aggravated by a dispute in the gas sector, where Kiev and Moscow are arguing about a new transit contract to replace the current agreement which expires at the end of the year.
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of using natural gas supplies to put pressure on the neighbouring state, but last week the parties managed to agree on the main points of a new deal.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)
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